José Ramírez, Face of the Guardians Franchise, Is Sticking Around

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

José Ramírez is subtly bending the fabric of space and time. It’s the only way I can explain it. How else can you square the particular details of his hitting prowess? He’s impossibly quick to the ball, creating consistent loud contact. That should require a wild swing, but it doesn’t. He’s one of the best contact hitters in baseball. He has one of the best approaches in the game; sometimes it seems like he knows what’s coming before the pitcher throws it. He’s one of the best defenders in the game. It all feels vaguely magical.

Until today, he was also the most underpaid star in baseball. A five-year, $26 million extension he signed before the 2017 season (with two team options for another $26 million) immediately preceded his ascent to one of the best players in the game. That’s no longer true; today, he more than tripled his career guaranteed earnings by agreeing to a five-year, $124 million extension with the Guardians.

This deal, which starts after the 2023 season, should keep Ramírez in Cleveland for the rest of his peak, and quite possibly the rest of his career. For fans of a franchise that had seen its home-grown stars leave quite a bit of late, it’s a welcome turn of events. For Ramírez, it’s financial and — thanks to a no-trade clause — workplace stability.

I know this article is about a contract, but I can’t help it: I just want to talk about how great Ramírez is. I wasn’t exaggerating up above; I really do struggle to wrap my head around his talent. Most hitters have identifiable holes, places where they sacrifice one thing to gain greatly in another area. Level, four-seam-punishing swing? You likely struggle with sinkers low in the zone. Patient approach that hunts fastballs and waits out secondary pitches? Breaking balls in the zone will be your Kryptonite. Whip-quick pull hitter? You might struggle with pitches away.

That’s not how Ramírez works, somehow. He has huge plate coverage despite being a dead pull hitter from both sides of the plate. Since 2017, his first full major league season, he’s pulled 43% of the balls he puts in the air as a left-handed hitter and 44% as a righty; the league-wide average is roughly 30%. It’s no secret that, in any given at-bat, he wants to smash the ball to the pull-side gap. Pitchers know this; look at how they handle him when he’s batting lefty:

Just so we’re clear, those are tough pitches to pull. And Ramírez is 5’9”; he’s not Aaron Judging balls out of the park or anything. His solution? You might think it’s a selection issue, and it kind of is, as he swings more on the inner half than outer half, and he’s particularly good at laying off pitches on the outside edge. But he also just pulls the ball anyway. Pitch a lefty batter away, and when they put the ball in the air, their pull rate tends to hover around 19%. Ramírez checks in at 29.2% for his career, the fourth-highest mark in baseball over that time period, behind Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, and Rougned Odor. But Ramírez is nothing like those hitters! Take a look at the top ten away pull hitters starting in 2015 and spot the differences:

Pull and Whiff Rates on Away Pitches, ’17-’21
Player Away Air Pull% Away Whiff%
Jay Bruce 35.4% 20.0%
Curtis Granderson 31.4% 18.2%
Rougned Odor 29.6% 17.8%
Jose Ramirez 29.2% 12.4%
Carlos Santana 27.7% 17.5%
Matt Carpenter 27.5% 20.9%
Max Kepler 26.5% 14.2%
Didi Gregorius 24.9% 15.2%
Gregory Polanco 24.1% 18.1%
Kyle Seager 23.7% 17.2%

You have to take a mighty hack to square those balls up, which means either a) plenty of swinging strikes or b) being José Ramírez.

If you pitch him inside, he’ll pull the ball too. And if you pitch him down the middle, you guessed it: scorched line drives and fly balls galore. It’s not that he’s the most fearsome power hitter in the league or anything; he’s produced an .814 wOBA on pulled balls in the air over that time period. For the sake of comparison, Bryce Harper checks in at .912, which is what otherworldly power looks like. Ramírez is more like Michael Brantley, who clocks in at .774, but with him, it’s in the air to the pull side all the dang time, and volume matters.

Pro-rate each player to 600 plate appearances, and you can see how Ramírez gets his value. He averages 85 pulled balls in the air per 600 plate appearances. Brantley averages 72; Harper averages 60. No one in baseball turns a higher percentage of their plate appearances into pulled fly balls. There’s no more valuable batted ball type, regardless of who you are. Ramírez has learned how to make the whole plane out of the black box, essentially.

Oh, and he walks almost as often as he strikes out, too. It’s inconceivable; he looks like David Fletcher when it comes to plate coverage in addition to doing the best thing a hitter can do more than any other hitter in baseball. Truly, Ramírez is a baseball cheat code. ZiPS thinks he’ll continue to be one for years to come before declining as he passes age 33:

ZiPS Projection – Jose Ramirez
2022 .275 .365 .544 513 96 141 34 4 32 102 70 25 141 3 5.4
2023 .274 .363 .546 493 91 135 34 5 30 99 67 26 141 2 5.2
2024 .273 .361 .543 477 87 130 32 5 29 94 64 25 139 1 4.8
2025 .272 .360 .536 459 81 125 30 5 27 89 60 24 137 0 4.4
2026 .264 .350 .505 436 73 115 26 5 23 78 55 20 127 -1 3.4
2027 .256 .336 .478 414 65 106 23 6 19 69 48 19 116 -2 2.5
2028 .249 .326 .443 386 56 96 20 5 15 59 42 17 105 -3 1.5

I guess I should do some contract analysis, so uh: yes. This deal is great! Before this contract, Cleveland had shied away from committing money to players for more than a few years; the largest deal in franchise history was Edwin Encarnación’s three-year, $60 million deal, and he was traded partway through that contract. The team simply hasn’t been willing to sign big deals, which means its best players either sign pre-arbitration extensions or leave when they reach free agency.

Ramírez is simply too good of a player to pass up on. Cleveland isn’t getting a particularly large discount; ZiPS suggests a five-year extension should be for $137 million, quite close to the actual number. But locking a player of his caliber up has its own rewards, even if it’s not some absurd financial windfall. The Guardians’ team-building plan revolves around pitching development. They’ve churned out surprisingly good arms on a consistent basis. On offense, they’ve attempted to manufacture average production across most of the diamond using pre-arb or otherwise low-cost players. But that approach works best when you complement it with a superstar hitter, and without Ramírez as an anchor, the Cleveland model might boil down to good pitching and no hitting.

It’s not hyperbole to say that a Ramírez extension changes the trajectory of the franchise. The way the team operates, he would likely have been traded in the next two seasons if he didn’t sign an extension; Cleveland has consistently tried to move players before free agency to add prospects to its development pipeline and keep the cost-controlled-talent spigot flowing. Without this contract, he’d likely be wearing a different jersey in six months, with some collection of marquee prospects in the Guardians’ system in his place.

Instead, the team is committing to trying to be good now. It might do so under salary constraints, and it’ll probably do so in its idiosyncratic “wait-this-is-a-major-league-outfield?” style. Cleveland’s expenditures have cratered since before the pandemic; the organization ran a $124 million payroll in 2019, but its combined Opening Day payrolls for ’21 and ’22 add up to only $108 million. There’s plenty more work to do in future years to maximize the team’s chances of making the playoffs with Ramírez at his peak.

By signing this deal, though, the Guardians are announcing that they’ll try. For a team clearly driven by value, spending scarce resources on a star without competing doesn’t make any sense. You don’t sign Ramírez and then put a 72-win team around him; even if he’s worth six wins on his own, the combination doesn’t make sense. No, with Ramírez in the fold, they will be aiming to build competitive rosters at a minimum, and hopefully division-winning teams. And if you know you’re spending a healthy chunk on Ramírez, it probably doesn’t make sense to punt a position completely the way the team is with first base and left field this year. That doesn’t mean Cleveland will go all out to sign Aaron Judge or Max Muncy this offseason, but I do think it presages more spending and a greater emphasis on reliable commodities instead of low-ceiling prospects.

Case in point: If you’re trying to spin straw into gold, giving Bobby Bradley a chance to turn into an average regular at first base seems reasonable, particularly if there’s no guarantee you’ll have Ramírez to anchor the lineup in six months. Getting market-rate production out of a first baseman when the rest of your offense is mediocre just won’t cut it if you’re running Cleveland-level budgets. But with Ramírez locked in for seven years, there’s no need to hedge that way; the team is starting with one of the best players in baseball every year, which makes constructing the rest of the roster much easier.

It’s a meaningful change in team strategy. For Ramírez, it seems like a welcome one; he got a no-trade clause in the deal but no opt-outs, which means he’ll be in Cleveland for as long as he wants to be. It’s great! Seeing teams retain their homegrown talent and commit to building a winning roster around them is delightful. There’s obviously more work to be done, and more money to be spent; it doesn’t make much sense to plan on $50 million payrolls with half going to one player, so the Guardians are going to have to head back to pre-pandemic spending levels before I declare this a success. But they’ve made a move in the right direction, and Ramírez has made a move in the generationally-wealthy direction, and there’s nothing I don’t like about it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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7 months ago

Hard to imagine they’ll keep spending. But … it will be fascinating to watch. Perhaps owner approval for x number of years of increased spending before tearing it down again? Or does this deal and its corresponding cost certainly increase the chance he gets traded? So many questions!

7 months ago
Reply to  riffkey

It comes with a full no trade clause for Ramirez, so substantially reduces the chances that he’ll be traded at all in the future.

7 months ago
Reply to  riffkey

I think the question about whether Cleveland keeps spending is a realistic one, unfortunately. I wouldn’t expect them to splurge now but they really should consider locking up Bieber, and then when whatever set of Espino / Rocchio / Arias / Valera / Freeman establish themselves as major leaguers, they should probably spend again then too.

7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Probably all depends on how much it takes to sign them long term. I’m sure they’d do it if they feel it’s affordable enough… although pitchers are clearly more volatile and less reliable — and they may just conclude it’s better to depend on their own development know-how to keep that side of the game inexpensive while spending bigger on occasion on someone like JRam instead…

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7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

If you become a pitching factory, then you don’t need to lockup your pitching stars cause another will be right around the corner. Bieber is likely the best they will have for a while, but to compete at a top level for a long time you have to get more prospects than provided by the draft if your not spending big in free agency. I do not see them spending big in free agency. So I see them trading Bieber as his price starts to climb. But, I hope I’m wrong for the Guardian’s fans sake.

7 months ago
Reply to  riffkey

The Indians have a short window to make something.

The Indians aremost likely going to be wasting his prime losing